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San Diego bans wood fires on city beaches to prevent burn injuries, poor nighttime air quality

Four people sit on the beach around a small bonfire, as surfers bob in the waves and a man carrying a surfboard walks past.
Joni Bailey, Martin Aguirre and Jabetha and Tommy Temming enjoy a small bonfire they built using a couple of wooden logs at La Jolla Shores Beach on Aug. 26, 2022.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Critics say the changes will make beach bonfires too expensive for many and contend an education campaign would have been better than a crackdown.

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San Diego banned wood bonfires on city beaches Tuesday unless those fires are inside designated city rings.

City officials said the new policy will reduce burn injuries from smoldering wood underneath sand, improve air quality in beach neighborhoods and clarify rules for beach users and police seeking to crack down on illegal fires.

Critics, including companies that create bonfires for tourists, said a safety education campaign would have been a better choice than a crackdown. They also said many low-income families won’t be able to afford to enjoy beach bonfires now.

San Diego has been allowing wood fires, some directly on the sand and some in privately provided metal containers, for many years — even if those fires are located outside designated fire rings.

The ban rewrites a vague section of municipal code covering beach fires to explicitly ban all kinds of wood fires anywhere except inside the city rings.

Under the ban, the only fires allowed outside of designated city rings are propane fires, which leave no dangerous embers and produce less smoke.

Charcoal barbecuing is still allowed on grassy park areas next to city beaches, officials said.

Hotels and other private businesses that lease city land are exempt from the new policy, so they will still be allowed to have wood fires outside of city fire rings.

“The proposed changes will make our beaches safer by preventing hospitalizations, and they will help the environment by stopping the spread of charcoal ash debris and improve air quality throughout the city,” said Larry Webb, president of the Mission Beach Town Council.

Webb, who lobbied for the changes along with other community leaders along the coast, said the new policy is about clarity and enforcement.

“The amendments are not a ban on beach fires, but they will provide the public with clear rules as to what is allowed and give first responders the clarity needed to enforce regulations — clarity that currently doesn’t exist,” he said.

The City Council approved the new policy Tuesday in an 8-0 vote, with Councilmember Vivian Moreno absent.

Councilmember Jennifer Campbell, who represents Mission Beach and Ocean Beach, said the new policy is the right move.

“I believe this ordinance really makes clear what is allowed and what is not,” she said. “It’s very necessary for public safety and health.”

Cameron Naiman, who has owned Beach and Bay Bonfires for nearly 10 years, said the new policy is the result of lobbying by residents near city beaches.

“This has actually been a big push from all the wealthy beachfront property owners,” he said. “The beach is a public space for the entire population of San Diego city and county, not just these people’s personal front yard.”

Naiman also said propane fires, the only legal choice now if the limited number of city rings are occupied, require devices that are too expensive for most low-income families.

He said an education campaign would have made more sense. “We need education, not more laws,” he said.

Some say the solution is providing more fire rings. The city eliminated many rings in 2008 and never replaced them.

City officials rejected last summer a compromise proposed by bonfire companies to tighten regulations but keep allowing the makeshift fires outside of city rings.

A compromise proposed by bonfire companies was rejected, and police have been cracking down on fires this summer

The bonfire companies suggested city officials could carefully track all wood-fueled fires outside of city rings, including which companies coordinate each fire, so that any irresponsible behavior could be traced back to those companies for enforcement.

While some bonfires are lit by ordinary residents on their own, most are lit and coordinated by professional companies that provide tourists or residents the firewood, food and other equipment needed.

While the municipal code — if strictly interpreted — might already ban fires outside city-designated rings, city officials say it’s important to update the code for clarity and because wood fires have been allowed outside those rings for so long.

Aides to Councilmember Joe LaCava, who spearheaded the new policy, said it brings San Diego’s beaches in line with all other beaches in the state, which already ban makeshift beach fires.

“Beachgoers will no longer fear stepping on hot coals buried under the sand or breathing excessive smoke,” said LaCava, who represents La Jolla and Pacific Beach.

City officials said fines for illegal beach fires range from $250 to $1,000.

Because the ban includes an ordinance in addition to the municipal code changes, it won’t take effect until 30 days after the council approves it a second time in January.


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